Monday, 4 January 2021

Create a simple research plan in 5 steps

When undertaking ANY research project, our first step should be to plan. I tend to start with a pencil list on paper, and then consider what other tools I might need, depending on the project's complexity. 

For example, if a project is complex enough, I will move my planning into an Excel worksheet, then load all the dates for the components into my diary. If a project is likely to be short and simple, I might make a flowchart in PowerPoint that I can leave on my desk, and make pencil notes on it.

When working with research students, I use a 15 week research flowchart in my teaching slide decks, and put the master research plan on my wall as a flowchart. At each class or meeting, I will direct students to the master flowchart so they know whether they are up to speed or falling behind. 

I have written blog posts on developing a research management plan (here), but I have not really talked about how to do a fast and dirty research plan. This is the time!

When planning, we set out by intending that we have a way of ensuring that things don't get lost. We know we have to wedge a number of management tasks into a particular time window: usually with set start and end dates. We need to manage our time, the tasks, report on any milestones, the output quality, and obtain the resources we need, as we need them. To be able to do that, we need:
  1. Research Question & Aims. We need to be REALLY clear about what we want to end up with. What will our outputs be? Do we want answers to questions? Do we want to gather evidence? Do we just want to get a rough idea? Do we want a list of options? This may take MANY drafts, but it is worth it to be really clear. A clear start sets the tone for the rest of the project.
  2. Alignment. To finalise step 1, we may just be able to decide (in which case we MAY be able skip this step), or we may have to get consensus from our audience. This may be our team, our organisation, the people whom the research is for, or a broader stakeholder group... or all of these. We could also think of this stage as our literature review, where we 'locate' our research in our field; we put the research into context. We need to be sure that we can get the project delivered to whatever our deadline is. 
  3. Diarise. Detailed planning of what will get done and when; what needs to go in what order; what must happen first, and what must happen last; what can happen simultaneously (so can be 'contracted out'), and what must happen sequentially. Work out a critical path, so we know the maximum compression for the project: and what the desired working speed is. Factor in time for thinking.
  4. Contingency. We have no idea what might happen - think Covid-19 - so we need to plan for problems. If we do that, we can build slack into the project so we don't end up with a logjam that disheartens us. Consider all the things that may go wrong, and consider a brief strategy to work around each. This may just be a brief note.
  5. Share. Share the plan with whoever needs to see it, and ask them to poke holes in it. It will also align the entire effort. If, for example, you need access to software, sharing your plan with the research team should mean that someone might flag to you that there is no NVivo access at the time you are wanting to do your analysis, but you could juggle your project a week or two either side and not have a problem.
While these five steps are simplified, this quick bit of planning can make a big difference to our success. It is a mental discipline that ensures we step through even the smallest projects in a systematic, careful manner, harking back to Bennet's research approach:
    “a systematic, careful inquiry or examination to discover new information or relationships and to expand/verify existing knowledge for some specified purpose” (Bennet, 1991, p. 68)



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